But Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

“What about civility? Respect for the people one loves? Discretion, for god’s sake?” asks Lucy Douglas “C.Z.” Guest, the enigmatic socialite and fashion icon played by Chloë Sevigny in Ryan Murphy’s latest installation of the Feud series, Capote vs. the Swans. Across from her sits the American novelist and screenwriter Truman Capote (Tom Hollander), author of several works, many of which have been heralded as literary classics like the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the true crime novel In Cold Blood

Seated at a table at La Côte Basque, an Upper West Side restaurant in Manhattan known as the go-to for the who’s who of New York’s high society, Capote attempts to repair the rift that has ruffled the feathers of his “swans”—a name affectionately bestowed by him upon a group of wealthy and elegant socialites like Barbara “Babe” Paley (Naomi Watts), Nancy “Slim” Keith (Diane Lane), Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), and Guest—after an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Answered Prayers, has run in Esquire. The chapter, “La Côte Basque, 1965,” divulged the real-life secrets of these women with whom he’s formed close-knit relationships. Though fictionalized, it wasn’t hard to identify which character portrayed which swan, and what dirty laundry belonged to whom. Infidelity was exposed, accusations of murder were made, and that was enough to shun Capote—for the rest of his life—from the community he centered himself and his writing around.

When he tries to restore his friendship with his swans, starting with C.Z., he tells her, “It’s just a book.” He doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of upset that has led to, not just his ostracism, but his ultimate professional and personal downfall—especially after one of the swans, Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), takes her life ahead of the excerpt’s publication in Esquire. She is shattered after word gets back to her that Capote has been going around telling everyone that she shot her late husband—fodder soon to be printed in text for public consumption—and death, to her, was the only viable response. When Capote maintains that his observations are merely a conduit for his storytelling, C.Z. snaps at him, “What about civility? Respect for the people one loves? Discretion, for god’s sake? Reciprocity! What about reciprocity?” (It’s worth noting and asking what kind of reciprocity, considering the stark imbalance of power that separates Capote from his elite entourage.)

This is not a unique angle when you boil it down to a writer and who is manifested in their work and how. Fictionalized or not, the perennial questions remain: Whose story is it to tell? What are the moral guidelines, if any? How far is too far? Does quality come before doing no harm? These questions will continue being asked for as long as stories will continue to be told. 

I expected to hear from those I’d written about, but for the most part, I wasn’t anticipating any upset or confrontation.

When I published my memoir, Born to Be Public, in 2020, I expected to hear from those I’d written about, but for the most part, I wasn’t anticipating any upset or confrontation. Unless you’re the friend who all of your friends come to for recon on a dude they met on Bumble and are able to pull up said dude’s tax returns from the last three years along with his academic transcripts and the name of his second-grade teacher’s acupuncturist, you probably can’t identify the rude and condescending writer I crossed paths with at a networking event in one chapter or the semi-famous artist I talk shit about in another. The only person I was nervous to hear from—if I heard from him at all—was one particular ex, Roy, about whom I’d written a whole chapter, the longest in the book.

One morning, on the train to my day job in South Slope, Brooklyn, my phone buzzed in my tote. I put down the book I was reading and pulled it from my bag, feeling my heart skip a beat when I saw the number that had texted me. Even though I had broken off contact with him and deleted his number years ago, it remained locked in my memory. I opened up Roy’s text: just a screenshot, confirming his purchase of my book from my publisher’s website. I had just revealed the cover the day before, along with a link to pre-order my book. I stared at my screen, not knowing what to say, for several moments.

“Hey, that’s really sweet of you,” I typed. “I really appreciate it.” I hit send. I felt knots forming in my stomach, intensifying their grip every minute I waited for a response. My phone buzzed again: “I’m so proud of you,” he wrote back, followed by the smiling face with a tear emoji. Dots. More typing. “I can’t wait to read it,” read his latest response. 

In some ways, this was a relief. I would not have to spend years after the publication of my book wondering if he had read it or not: the moment had just arrived in my literal lap. I knew I could not write, let alone publish, this book without telling my side of our story. Our relationship was the catalyst for the author that had emerged from the seemingly never-ending crescendo that was my excessively turbulent twenties. And, even though I had not initiated contact with him in years, I still deeply cared for him. Most certainly enough to give him the courtesy of a heads-up.

“So, there’s something I should tell you,” I started typing. “I wrote about us. I hope you can understand why.”

I was telling a story that few people knew, and even fewer had witnessed.

“I figured as much,” he writes back. “Why else do you think I pre-ordered it?” I let out a laugh; I knew him and his sense of humor well enough to know that this last part was a joke. Some of the tension that had taken hold of me dissolved. Yet, I knew I would remain anxious until he read it. I was telling a story that few people knew, and even fewer had witnessed, about the exceptionally volatile relationship that had almost destroyed us both. Through a series of painfully both public and private incidents, it had become unequivocally clear to me that Roy was struggling with severe mental illness, which, by virtue of being left untreated, spelled doom for us. I couldn’t not write about us without his demons, which threatened to consume us both. They were, in some ways, my demons, too. But also: it was not my place—or my job, for that matter—to diagnose him. 

Anytime I write about someone, whether directly or tangentially, I make sure to give extra care to not just what I share (or don’t), but how. In my book, I wrote about how, when I described the increasingly toxic dynamic of our relationship to my therapist at the time, she said, based on what I had told her, it seemed, to her, that he might have borderline personality disorder. Syntax was especially crucial here: I did not ascribe his behavior and patterns to a mental disorder. That was neither my place, nor my skill set. However, by talking to a mental health professional, a hunch was named, without using any declarative language, which made it possible to provide the context necessary to successfully convey the complex, oftentimes painful, facets of our relationship affected by suspected mental illness.

“I made sure to protect you,” I replied. “I changed your name and didn’t share anything that wasn’t mine to share.” 

“I’m not worried,” he wrote back. “I was actually hoping you would write about us. No matter what you wrote, I know you did it right.”

A few years later, we met up at a bar in Brooklyn. Roy had just moved back to New York from Denver, and had asked me if I wanted to get together and catch up over drinks. It had been eight years since we had last seen each other, and, despite how nervous it made me, I said yes; I felt ready for whatever conversations—both inevitable and unforeseen—would come from the night. 

After a long, tearful embrace outside the bar, we made our way in and perched ourselves on two stools. No sooner had we ordered our first round did he pull a pen and a copy of my book from his backpack. He lovingly demanded that I sign his book. 

“So, you don’t hate me?” I asked, half joking.

He laughed. He told me he could never hate me; in fact, he thanked me. “I needed to read that,” he said, after taking a swig of his gin and soda. “What hurt me most is how painful it was for you. I never would have known that unless you had written about it, and I’m glad you did. Now I know how much I actually need to apologize for, and even then, I don’t think it would be enough.” 

The funny thing, though, is that him saying that was enough—perfectly, exactly enough. It would take a few more messy, tearful nights to fully go through everything that had happened between us, but eventually, we worked through it and came out as friends in the end. And not only did he read my book—twice!—he bought several copies for multiple people, even selling books to friends and strangers alike, joking that he was the villain in the book. In fact, last year at a reading I did, we slipped in a copy of my book that he signed as well—under both his real and fictional name—in a stack that was later stocked at a local bookstore in Brooklyn.

But this wasn’t the only unexpected outcome from publishing my book.

Every sentence must carry momentum towards what the writer is writing towards.

After my Born to Be Public came out, an old friend of mine from college reached out, asking me why I hadn’t written about them—us—in my book, implicitly wanting to know whether our friendship had meant anything to me. Of course, it did, and it still does. I had written about them in several earlier drafts of the book, but those sections were ultimately cut because they did little to serve the narrative trajectory of the book. I tried to explain this—how, no matter how much we may love a certain chunk or chapter we’ve written in a work-in-progress, none of them are safe until the final draft. Every sentence must carry momentum towards what the writer is writing towards. I tried to explain that this was a craft-based decision—but their disappointment remained and we haven’t spoken since. 

It was the first time something that I didn’t write had upset someone. Like the age-old adage suggests, you can’t please everyone. Some will praise, some will argue, rebuke, or worse (take it out on you on Goodreads). But when it comes to an emotional response, the only common denominator is the truth, which is not singular. There is never just one truth, just like there’s never just one story. It is everyone’s story to tell. I will tell my story of Roy one way, and should he choose, he will tell it another. 

“I don’t want love; I want forgiveness,” Truman says at the start of the Feud finale. Some may argue this was an overdrawn feud compounded by gilded pettiness; others may see it in black and white: Capote crossed a line that never should have been crossed. No matter where you stand on the matter, standing anywhere implies there is a line—and sometimes, that line gets crossed.

In some ways, this is how I feel when I write about people whom I suspect will take exception to the way I’ve written about them. Someone will inevitably get upset—even if they’re not in the text all, as I’ve come to learn. Depending on my relationship to the subject of my writing, I may ask permission—or I may not. If I’m writing about someone close to me, like my best friend, boyfriend, or a family member, I will, more times than not, ask them how they feel about what they’ve read. Other times, I don’t ask for permission at all. No matter the case, I hope for forgiveness, if not understanding. 

I don’t believe in the ownership of stories. Our involvement in—or absence from—an occurrence does not grant exclusivity to how we choose to metabolize it, whether on or off the page. Capote was, at best, ancillary to the happenings he wrote about and published in Esquire. He wasn’t part of what he’d written about in the way that I was with Roy; he was a witness. He was an important part of these people’s lives—they opened up to him, trusted him— but he was never more than a bystander. He observed and layered his accounts into prose that spoke truth to power long before that expression solidified itself into our lexicon. In Episode 5, James Baldwin (Chris Chalk) spends a day dining and drinking with Capote, explaining what made him gravitate towards Answered Prayers. How class, race, and sexuality influence and inform the way the swans move through the world. In this scenario, he argued, it was good for society at large to see The Haves portrayed in this way, to reveal the dark underbelly of rot buoying the upper class. Witnessing something makes it the writer’s, every bit as much as reading what is written makes that writing the reader’s. A writer’s job is to experience something, either directly or indirectly, and then write about it. 

I would argue, however, that the line is not a line at all. Whatever is possible to cross is not linear at all.

The only thing we can agree on is: There is a line; what we never will agree on: Where that line is. Some are careful not to cross it; others get off by moving the line and then pole-vaulting over it. I would argue, however, that the line is not a line at all. Whatever is possible to cross is not linear at all. I see it as more of a snaking thread, and the path it’s on isn’t fixed either.

Depending on who you ask, I cross lines. Or I don’t cross them enough. I’m not straddling something with no form to accommodate falling on both sides. I’m only navigating a path, guided by what is true to me, occupying the side that feels right to me at that particular moment my lived experiences fit into. My only constant in a sea of variables: I will never put my art before the welfare of those whom I love and deeply care for, even if they hurt me. Even if my words hurt them. I can’t control how my words are received once they leave my hands. 

What I can control is how I tell a story. How, as a memoirist, I metabolize my life on the page. I am intentional: I care less about telling the truth and more about being truthful. There are, after all, things in my book that were true at one point that are not true today. So, while I aim to write with clarity and conviction, I really write to keep things alive, so my words, like me, have a chance to grow and change, too. 

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